HL Deb 22 March 2004 vol 659 cc459-61

2.42 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as having appeared as an advocate in various courts martial.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of their objections to the procedures proposed by the United States Government for Guantanamo trials, the practice of the escort accompanying a defendant in a British naval court martial with a drawn and brandished sword, and the wearing and display of sheathed swords by the prosecutor and members of the court martial, is to be maintained.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the Royal Navy has determined, for reasons wholly unconnected with Guantanamo, that there is no longer a requirement for the escort accompanying a defendant in a naval court martial to carry a drawn sword, or for members of the court martial to wear sheathed swords. The first naval court martial to be held without swords was convened at Her Majesty's Ship "Drake" in Plymouth on 15 March 2004.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that response. I have heard that a drawn sword was used very much later than that—

A noble Lord

Not very much—I can tell you.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

Well, not very much—since. Does the Minister consider whether, in the current atmosphere, courts martial should be confined to questions of military discipline and that the practice of prosecuting soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families for civil offences in cases which are much more apposite to the Crown Court should be abandoned?

Lord Bach

My Lords, first, I hope that the noble Lord will let me know of those cases that have occurred within the past seven days. Secondly, the answer to his serious question is that we do not intend to abandon courts martial. We believe that civilian courts are less likely than service courts to possess a full appreciation of the importance of discipline to the operational capability of the Armed Forces and of the possibility that an offence committed in the service environment may have even more serious implications than a similar offence committed in civilian life. Moreover, at the moment civilian courts do not have jurisdiction to try service disciplinary offences.

There are other reasons, too. As the noble Lord will know much better than I, in most cases civilian courts in the United Kingdom do not have jurisdiction in respect of offences alleged to have been committed overseas. The world-wide application of service law is particularly important for mobile forces which need to be able to maintain discipline as a key to operational capability. Service courts are also able to try alleged offences committed outside the United Kingdom. That can be a useful means of ensuring that the accused are dealt with in English courts and in accordance with the system of English law rather than in foreign courts where language, law and procedures can be rather different.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, in the light of the recent challenges made to the European Court of Human Rights, do the Government believe that the courts martial system is secure from further challenges?

Lord Bach

Yes, my Lords. We do believe that the system is secure from further challenges. After all, the judgments made it quite clear that the principle of courts martial was upheld and was deemed not to be against the Human Rights Act.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, how can a drawn and brandished sword used for ceremonial purposes be contrary to any article in the Human Rights Act?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we do not know whether or not it is against any article in the Human Rights Act, because no case has been taken to the European court suggesting that it is against human rights. We are doing this because we want to make our procedures more closely in line with those in the Army—in which I believe the noble Lord served gallantly a few years ago—and the RAF, but mainly in preparation for a tri-service Bill, in which a common disciplinary system across all three services is intended. I think the House would agree that that would be a good thing.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, as they have acted so promptly on the tabling of a Question by my noble friend, can the Minister say whether the Government have any further plans as regards wigs and gowns for judges?

Lord Bach

My Lords, there was a time when I could answer that question, but now I cannot.